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October 1, 2009

Dolphins in the Lineup

Surfing with dolphins is a great way to start the day

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Dolphins should be free, not in captive tanks. iStockphoto

Paddling out into the glassy Pacific Ocean on a surfboard at daybreak is where this story starts.

Not much can equal the thrill of catching that perfectly clean, head-high wave—except maybe the bounty of sea animals that sometimes, in the rare uncrowded lineup, give us the pleasure of their company.

Sea-Faring Friends

This was one of those exceptional days—for me, the most exceptional yet. Paddling through the kelp beds out to the break off the cliffs of Santa Cruz, I passed more than one sea otter munching busily on his breakfast while floating on his back, using his belly like a breakfast table. As the sun rose and the fog dissipated, a sea lion poked his head above the water, turned toward me and barked noisily, before ducking below the surface again.

But as every waterman (or woman) knows, of all the sea animals we meet, there's something special about the presence of dolphins. And here they are again on this day, their familiar dorsal fins breaking the surface of the water during their graceful, arching, silver-bullet swim along the shoreline.

Delightful Dolphins

When the next set of waves rolled through, the dolphins joined for the ride. In duos and trios, they glide into the rolling waves.

I'd heard about dolphins riding waves for what appeared to be the sheer the joy of it. I had seen pictures, but in all my years as a surfer, this was the first time I actually experienced the joy of it first-hand. Yes, I said to myself, we are sisters and brothers who share a love of surfing.

Anthropomorphizing? Perhaps. But then again, if these sleek, friendly animals weren't here for the sheer joy of it, just what were they doing on this morning in this ocean swell?

They might've been there for same joy we feel from surfing, or they might've been doing something as ordinary as working the best available fishing spot. Scientists warn against the temptation, mighty as it sometimes is, to get carried away with the idea that dolphins are our playmates or pals.

The exploitation of dolphins is sometimes rooted in this very logic. But nobody could deny the exhilaration or the beauty of such a moment as dolphins riding the waves, all the while leaping high into the air, splashing, flipping, twirling and breaching—the showoffs!

The Slickest of Surfers

In the end, whatever was going on in their large but still mysterious brains remains with the dolphins. All I can tell you truthfully is that these surfers filled me with awe like none with whom I'd ever shared a space in water.

Sometimes while we waited for a set, a dolphin would surface within a few feet, pausing just long enough so I could get an up-close glimpse into the dark eyes of … him? Her? I saw the nicks in their dorsal fins and the little scratches marking up their otherwise smooth, inky-grey skin—each imperfection making them all the more intriguing.

At the Humane Society of the United States, I work to end the cruel treatment of animals. That means for the rest of this day, like others, I will have to deal with the awful things that people inflict on the innocent creatures who share our world. This reason alone made me all the more thankful for this peaceful, joyous, wild encounter in the surf.

A Bittersweet Departure

As I left the water, I thought of one other thing.

I thought of the dolphins who are captured and confined in barren enclosures so that tourists can have an "experience" by getting into the water with them.

This happens in various seaside resorts in tourist hotspots around the globe, and I imagine that many vacationers who plunge into a dolphin pool don't even stop to think that these magnificent, intelligent creatures are, in turn, denied all the real experiences that comprise their natural lives.

It's a rotten trade-off for the dolphins. Captivity is no proper fate for such grand surfers.

And neither is killing them for meat, or as by-catch to the fishing industry.

Dolphins should swim free.

That's right; I'm back in the work mode now. And I hope you'll join me in working for the defense of the most beautiful wave riders any of us will ever see.

Take Action!

The recent movie "The Cove" spotlights a number of issues dolphins face. Visit our review of the film to learn more and take action.

Ariana Huemer is cruelty case manager for The Humane Society of the United States' Animal Cruelty and Fighting campaign.

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